Is your team constantly stuck in brainstorming mode? According to Nilofer Merchant, "Murderboarding is the counterbalance to whiteboarding.” In her new book, The New How, Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, Nilofer Merchant shares what’s she’s learned in her business career and successfully applied for clients like Adobe, Apple and Nokia. After recently profiling Nilofer on SmartPlanet we’ve asked her to return to help us with this powerful process.
Nilofer, why is MurderBoarding important?
MurderBoarding is important because when we work collaboratively it is often challenging to focus on the small number of key things that are necessary for success. Brainstorming is often regarded as problematic because it causes an explosion of ideas, many of them good, but most groups cannot effectively prune the ideas down to a manageable list. Consequently, a lot of teams address this challenge by only considering a very limited set of options. In the book, I reference a McKinsey study that found that most firms study three or fewer options and that in retrospect 60% would not examine more. The right answer is not to start with a short list, but to have a reliable way to narrow a big list. That’s what MurderBoarding gives you, which in turn gives you the freedom to brainstorm.
Is it fun to do?
Not always! I’d love to say it is always joyful, but that’s not the case. Realistically, choosing is hard. Often there are multiple good ideas, or several pet ideas advocated by different individuals. Most often, there are not enough resources (money, people, time) to pursue more than one. One way or another, success will depend on narrowing the list. This is about the clichéd “tough choices.” Part of the purpose of the edgy name is to be clear that the process is not about conflict avoidance.
But that’s not to say that MurderBoarding is always painful. Because choosing is core to MurderBoarding, it’s important to do it well. That means fairly and logically, not arbitrarily or sloppily, which would definitely be painful for those whose preferences got dropped.
How does it work?
MurderBoarding starts by Deciding What Matters. Very often the criteria for decision making is simply assumed, or seems to shift subtly from one meeting to the next. Pinning that down explicitly (and honestly) is key, and this can be an issue. In some organizations, one honest criteria might be “it’s gotta be Bob’s idea.” MurderBoarding is hard to apply in these situations! Second, MurderBoarding has a Sort step that works through the available options based on the criteria. Some ideas are weak and get dropped at this point. After sorting, you often have a set of workable but potentially incomplete ideas, plus you often realize that you have missed some criteria that need to add to your list. Third, the ideas need to be tested for viability within the broader organization. Even in an inclusive group you may not have enough institutional knowledge to know what obstacles exist to implementation. As a part of the Testing step, ideas are merged and reworked until they’re more practical and deployable. Finally, there is the Choose step. Often by this point the answer is self-evident, but sometimes consensus doesn’t develop, and a decision must be forced for the good of the organization. Even in these cases, though, it’s valuable to know that an arbitrary choice was made between two (or more) options that are highly comparable. By contrast, making an arbitrary choice without following the MurderBoarding process can leave much of the team convinced that an inferior option was selected.
Can you share an example of MurderBoarding in action?
Any example that I summarize here will gloss over some of the gory details, which matter a great deal in most cases. But I can talk about an instance that gives a flavor for what MurderBoarding is about.
One of my clients wanted to expand one of their product lines into a new region or country, and the challenge was to determine which one. Naturally, many of the participants in the decision making process had strong and differing opinions about where that expansion should happen. At many firms, this decision might ultimately have been made through a more political than intellectual process, which might not have been best for the firm. But by following the MurderBoarding process, the firm was able to make a more reasoned selection in such a way that also clarified how the expansion would be implemented.
They began by identifying what success would look like. This involved investment, language support, revenue opportunity, etc. Then they sorted the various options that had initially been initially identified. Some options were quickly dropped, but they also realized that they need additional criteria, such as piracy rates. Each option on the narrowed list was then tested in various ways to see what obstacles were present, and currency issues were identified as being more problematic in one option than the other.
In the end, the group chose an improved option that was better than the original version, and which was hardly the front runner at the outset. Participants from regions which were not selected nevertheless felt respected and heard, and that the process was valid, assuring that they would support the decision as well as participate in good faith in future decision making processes.
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Read Part One of our Visit with Nilofer Merchant